Moving house is one of the top three biggest stressors in a human’s life. Moving house overseas adds weight to that stress.
There’s lots of information available about culture shock and tips on how to adjust to your new lifestyle.
A really simple tool that may help you understand and work through culture shock without reading volumes of information is the pyramid diagram from the Psychological Theory of Human Motivation (called the Theory of Self-Actualisation, by Abraham Maslow).
This was not designed for new expats but it works perfectly for the process of adjustment when one moves to a new country.
In short, the theory states that in order to achieve self-actualisation–when a human is most content with life and performs at their best, one must satisfy the needs in the bottom levels of the hierarchy before they can progress to the higher levels.
Here’s a bit more detail about the pyramid:
1 Basic physiological needs
Food, water, air to breathe, and good health. Only when these needs are met can humans concentrate on seeking the higher needs of the next step.
When we move somewhere new we first need to know we have a place to stay, we need to know where to buy food, and we need to know we have a source of clean water.
This includes security of body, of family, of shelter/property, and security of employment.
We are generally more alert and cautious until we know where the hazards lie and how to avoid them: doors are locked, windows checked, the neighbourhood is observed, and we pause longer at the side of the road to look for traffic coming from unfamiliar directions.
We get to know people before we allow our children play with their children at their home.
We read and reread the employment contracts to make sure we understand all the details and are reassured the contract is good for us.
3 Love and belonging
This layer is about friendship, family, and intimacy with a partner. The luxury of essential relationship maintenance is much easier when one doesn’t have to worry about the first two levels of the hierarchy.
At this level it is important that we make friends, we spend time with our family exploring the new place or just relaxing, and we return home to the comforts and the intimacy of the family. We develop a ‘team’ or a tribe with our family and our groups of friends and this team lends valuable support as we move to the next stages of the hierarchy.
It is also essential to remember our relationship with our partner or spouse. Networks need to be developed and children need support, but partners and spouses–whether stay at home or off at work, also need support, reassurance, and intimacy.
An hour of quiet, adult time in the evening should be an important part of every day, if possible. Once you find a reliable babysitter or service, schedule in a date night every week or every month. Divorce rates dramatically increase for expats, but they don’t need to. Take care of each other. This cannot be emphasised enough! You are each other’s teammates, each other’s number one. Don’t take that relationship for granted and don’t allow resentment or irritations to build up or they will make a wedge between you very quickly when overseas.
4 Esteem and respect
This layer is about respecting others, earning respect from others, confidence in one’s own abilities, positive self-esteem, accomplishments and achievements.
Progressing this far up the hierarchy we now have enough emotional and physical support to go out and start achieving things in the world–whether at work or in other activities. We feel proud of these achievements and feel good about receiving recognition for our effort. This gives us more confidence to carry on making more efforts. Our work or activities will not ever be as successful as they can be unless we have paid attention to the earlier layers.
The original version of this theory states that only once all of these needs are satisfactorily met can we then attempt the final level Self-Actualization.
Updated versions of this theory include two more steps in the hierarchy at this point before self-actualization can be reached. These two added steps are especially relevant to the expat:
5 Cognitive Needs
These needs are defined as knowledge and understanding of the world around you.
Many things that seem everyday routines to local people will be different enough to trip-up a new expat. These can include: market days, dinner party etiquette, schools, sports events, healthcare and driving.
It is amazing how getting just a few of these ‘wrong’ in a week will really exhaust and frustrate a person. And equally amazing how finally ‘getting it’, gaining an understanding of the different systems will make you feel empowered.
Be patient with yourself: understanding will come.
6 Aesthetic Needs
A need for symmetry, order and beauty.
This could be the most debatable of the stages. Must you feel your immediate environment has order and beauty for you to feel ready for self-actualization?
Many studies have shown that the appearance of the environment has an effect on how ‘happy’ people are (‘happiness’ as demonstrated by lack of aggressive behaviour, acts of kindness, success on exams and other similar measures).
If a house is full of packing boxes, or if you have settled in an unattractive part of your host culture, you could be greatly limiting your potential for truly enjoying your stay abroad.
Before you move, try to visit the new location to check out the options for your new house or flat. Spend some time wandering through the neighbourhoods; see how far it is to walk to local grocery stores, schools and work, or how easy it is to drive to these places. Invest time in advance and you will be happier later.
Once you arrive, get organised and get those boxes unpacked and begin to decorate your home. But don’t exhaust yourself in the process!
This can mean different things to people. Broadly speaking being self-actualised means:
- you fully realise your potential
- spontaneity is easy and enjoyable
- you embrace problems and problem solving
- you accept all that you are, and
- you hold no prejudices against others.
When you reach this level, culture shock becomes a thing of the past, you easily cope with a new problem that arises whether specific to the expat experience or not, you no longer complain daily about what the locals do, you no longer feel anxiety about your shortcomings or inability to cope.
It is important to note that this hierarchy isn’t linear; we can move up and down the pyramid. When we move overseas and begin to make a life in the new country–whether for a year or forever, we move back down the hierarchy and start to work upwards again. If we go home for a few weeks then return to the host country, this may cause a brief drop down the hierarchy.
Try applying this theory to your life and see how well it matches up. When you’re at your best, have all the other needs been met? And when you’re not doing so well have you slipped down the hierarchy whilst dealing with bigger challenges from the lower levels?
Remember everyone who moves overseas experiences culture shock. Learning effective ways of dealing with it is the best way to learn how to enjoy your time abroad.
© 2010 Michelle Garrett